Unmanned SpaceX craft explodes after lift-off

CAPE CANAVERAL (Florida) - An unmanned Space Exploration Technologies rocket exploded about two minutes after lift-off in Florida yesterday, destroying a cargo ship bound for the International Space Station (ISS), Nasa said.

The 63m-tall rocket was the company's 19th Falcon 9 launch since its 2010 debut, including six previous cargo runs for Nasa under a 15-flight contract worth more than US$2 billion (S$2.7 billion).

SpaceX, as the company is known, is owned and operated by technology entrepreneur Elon Musk.

The cause of the accident was not immediately known.

The Dragon spacecraft was intended to deliver 1,800kg of food, supplies and science experiments to the ISS, where two Russian cosmonauts and one American astronaut are living.

The station crew has about four months of food and supplies on board, so the cargo ship accident would not pose an immediate problem.

However, Nasa's second cargo line remains grounded following a launch accident last October. In April, a Russian Progress cargo ship also failed to reach the station.

The rocket was also carrying a massive parking station for future spaceships. Nasa hopes to turn over crew transportation to the US companies before the end of 2017, breaking Russia's monopoly.

SpaceX had also intended for the rocket to guide itself back to a floating barge in the Atlantic for an upright landing.

This was part of Mr Musk's vision of revamping the rocket industry by making expensive rocket parts re-usable instead of discarding them in the ocean as happens now.

It would not have been SpaceX's first attempt. The firm's first try in January ended in failure when the rocket collided with the drone ship platform.

During its second attempt in April, the rocket tipped over after standing upright on the platform and exploded seconds later.

Including its station cargo runs for Nasa, SpaceX has a backlog of nearly 50 missions, worth more than US$7 billion, including dozens of commercial communications satellites.

The company last month won US Air Force certification to fly military and national security missions on the Falcon 9.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2015, with the headline 'Unmanned SpaceX craft explodes after lift-off'. Print Edition | Subscribe